On the eve of his new release, Cluster, let's examine Mr Neville's second-greatest film after Lost Atlas…
Oh, to be young and in America and in your suitcase is a master copy of your new film, a film that has the sweetest and most golden of glows (even if it’s kinda eerie!), and at open-air premieres all over the continent, strangers are hollering and punching the sky, at your film! Young men in sleeveless shirts, sweaters shucked on these warm summer nights, moving together as a whole, swaying, stiffening, hypnotised.
For one month in 2012, the Dear Suburbia entourage hit the west coast of America from San Francisco to Encinitas and, then, the east, from Jacksonville to New York City. But, to get from west to east, requires a two-day non-stop run through the dark heart of North America. It’s all electro-cute when you’re in the theme parks of Austin or Marfa in Texas or when you hit the Franco-influenced Louisiana, but to get that far, you have to cross New Mexico.
And, if you’ve ever watched a classic road film, you’ll know about New Mex. The high plains. The mountains. The desert. The overwhelming claustrophobia of emptiness. The overwhelming… strangeness. Well, hello Quentin Tarantino!
“It is like an American horror movie,” says Kai. “Literally, you swing into a truck stop and it’s like a scene in The Hills Have Eyes (2006). The creepiest, most desolate towns you’ve ever seen… We went into one truck stop and they had the shittiest breakfast you could ever have and, seriously, it was like everyone there was plotting against us, to murder us. This almost good-looking guy served us coffee and then he smiled and he had no teeth. It was… so… creepy.”
The question you ask a filmmaker like Kai Neville when he tells you something like this is, how many rolls did you shoot?
“Eight. It’s the sickest stuff.”
I recorded this interview with Mr Neville two years ago in the city of Angels where Mr Neville was tying the final bows on his Jordy Smith profile movie, made under the command of Red Bull, the Thai-Austrian energy drink.
BeachGrit: What were you trying to do with Dear Suburbia? Can you describe your journey from Modern Collective to Lost Atlas to this?
Kai: Well, I was chasing a vibe, a certain vibe, this ambience of time on the road. After working with this core group of guys that I started shooting with Modern Collective and Lost Atlas, I wanted to showcase how rad what we get to do is. I wanted to portray spontaneous jaunts around the world, compared to the usual suburban life. I want to inspire people to get on the road and to try something different.
There’s a seriousness about Dear Suburbia. Lost is upbeat; Mod’s electro. The opening desert chapter, with Nick Cave, is particularly eerie and suburbs, and suburban life as we both, are the eeriest things ever…
I think it’s cool that you can see that. I definitely wanted to try and have a cinematic feel about the movie. That’s why I shot on Red (ultra-high def digital camera) and had a lot of water angles and it’s why I slowed it down. I really wanted to stay away from all the shit that’s online. There’s so many web clips and so much bullshit. All that candid raw stuff worked for Lost Atlas but as soon as I started editing Dear Suburbia it felt like a web clip. Like, fuck, I’m just editing another web clip here. Why would people even pay for this or watch this again? I wanted something that was purely visuals and music-based and had cinematic undertones.
What parts of the film do you think were particularly successful?
The desert trip was the most successful trip I’ve been on: the quality of waves, the vibe of the guys and the shots that I got. that was the first trip I’ve ever shot on Red and it brought a whole new look and feel. We went in blind on that trip. I was expecting ramp-y kind of waves and we had these real beautiful waves with the best backdrops you’ve ever seen. Straight off the bat, working on the film, it had a new feel to it. A really good way of setting the scene for the movie and segueing into the other trips. It really changed our direction.
After the upbeat web clips, y’think people were a little confused when the movie starts and it’s a little ominous, a little scary?
It had a lot of people confused. The first few prequels, people thought they were the actual film, and that it was just going to be released online. It’s a good departure from the early teasers.
Anything you’re not so happy with?
I’d love to shoot Japan again. That was before I was into the theme of the movie and we followed a typhoon to Japan and I shot it on 7D (Canon digital SLR). But, at the same time, it kinda works cause that section’s really raw and fast and it’s a good shift away from all of the slower stuff. If I shot it again, I’d have so much slow stuff I wouldn’t know where to cut it or what to do with it. It’d probably be a little film in itself. If you shot that stuff slow-frame, like John John in the barrel, it would’ve looked… fucked up…
How do you get through the hours in the editing studio, mowing through all the slow-mo?
You get on the rouge, slap on some good tunes late at night and get into it.
Is there anything the casual viewer might miss upon a first viewing?
I’m actually really psyched on the intro. I don’t know if it really comes across, but the intro, itself, with the Brian Eno track, is one of the best parts of the film. It sets the vibe.
Where did you find the Brian Eno track? Ain’t that the most obscure thing ever!
I don’t even know! I’ve been buying a lot of my shit through iTunes, like I used to download all the music, but now, fuck it, I’m going to by it, and it’s way easier than spending half the day trying to find some weird torrent. I’d rather spend the money and get some proper albums. When you buy albums they recommend other artists and iTunes is soooo spot on. Like, you buy a Joy Division track and they’re going to recommend more eighties post-punk bands and that’s how I found a lot of tracks, from recommendations on iTunes.
More than anything, I believe your films succeed, because of your ruthless editing. Even the highest level of surfer can watch and not grouse about dud turns, which is something that used to find its way into Taylor Steele’s films who, before you, knew good surfing more than anyone. And, in your lifestyle shots, there’s rare candidness. Therefore, adornments of motifs and whatever aside, the reason your films are so good is because surfers are trying to impress Kai Neville.
Yeah! I think the boys, they want to step it up. I’ve worked on those relationships over time so those guys feel comfortable with me. And, the other thing I’ve noticed, is, lifestyle-wise, I’ve been shooting a lot of handheld, a lot of 16mm, and the camera’s not so confronting like a big digital RED camera. You stick that in your face and it’s intrusive. The guys are generally interested in 16mm and film cause they shoot photos themselves, so when they see that old Russian thing come out they can be themselves. And, I only noticed that lately cause I went to the Guggenheim and checked out Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch photographer. She’s got the craziest portraits. She shoots random people in the street and the way she got away with it was she had a big, large-format camera, this 1800’s-looking thing, and people are so interested in the camera, they come over, have a little talk, and then she’s, like, “Can I shoot your portrait?” So, part of it, is as simple as shooting with an interesting device.
Lost Atlas introduced us to John John, which was kinda weird since he’d been around for a zillion years, and what impression does Dear Subs leave us with? Perhaps that Reynolds, even now, is still the best surfer in the world?
Fuck. I totally agree. I’m just stoked that he contributed heavily to the film. It’s cool to see him in a headspace now where he wants to surf with the boys and do trips. I’m lucky I get to document that stuff and people get to check it out ’cause, fuck, he’s the best surfer in the world. Once you see him put a board on rail you’re like, oh my god, the boys can do some pretty wild airs and stuff but that’s real surfing.
Reynolds alternately loathes and loves the camera. How do you work around that? The shots where he’s wrapped in the flag and reflected in the tiny love heart mirror aren’t what you’d expect…
You can gauge if someone’s going to let you in, if they’re going to understand what you’re trying to get, what you’re trying to achieve with the shot. Dane, he shoots so much film, so many photos, that he’s got a good eye and he’ll know if you’re getting a pretty cool shot. If you’re doing something that’s gay he’ll be the first to tell you, as well.
Has he ever shut you down?
Not really. I don’t try to do too many setup shots, like, “Dane! Run over there!” I haven’t been totally shut down but… yeah… but if he told me, I’d be like (submissive voice)… okay… cool…
Did he suggest any of the shots? The mirror?
The idea was, I wanted to get some interesting shots to open the film, to show where they lived and then contrast that with shots of them on the road. Dane actually got his chick to shoot the shots. It turned out way better because he was more comfortable. He sent me the reel and I was, like, this is gold! This is natural, candid home footage.
Dane is to Kai Neville what Kelly Slater was to Taylor Steele. Correct or no? Discuss.
That’s a completely different dynamic. Kelly’s the ultra-competitor and Taylor was the same way. Taylor was producing the best films for a decade and Kelly wanted to be top guy in the best films. Where I’m at, I’m passionate about making good films but, at the same time, I want to have a good time and travel with the right guys. Dane, I think, is in a similar mind space.
Did you have to think a few times before you used (Just Like Honey) and Atmosphere as the closing two songs? They work, of course, the emotional reaction!, but y’aint the first… From Lost Translation to various other films, they are very popular.
I had the exact same question that you just asked. I used so many different songs for that Just Like Honey desert section and I was, like, fuck, this has been used in Lost in Translation, people are going to think I’m trying to bite that steeze. But, at the same time, like, fuck it, this song works so good, I’m so psyched on it, anything else I use, I’m going to be bummed. It fit the vibe perfectly. I’d be the first to say that closing section in Lost in Translation is fucking awesome so I like appropriating and doing something with the same sorta vibe. I literally tried a bunch of stuff and went, this is not working, that’s it, that’s the song.
Now, who in heavens is Kai Neville? How did you, this little ball of fun from the Gold Coast, become Reynolds’, JJs’, Chips’ etc, master?
I would not have a clue. Fuck. The lifestyle we lead is so crazy and so fast I haven’t had time to breathe and think about what’s happening. I still don’t. I’m so busy right now that I keep telling myself, fuck, keep rolling with it, keep rolling with it, I’m roling with it! I’ll find myself in meetings with big industry people one day then on the road with the world’s best surfers the next. I like to think I’m pretty addicted to my job, that I put in the hours, so I hope it’s a combo of hard work laced with occasional inspiration.
If you were to die tomoz, perhaps swallowed alive by the pomade with which you shape your unrelenting grand couronne of hair, what would your epitaph read? And, how would you be remembered?
My epitaph? I’ve been on planes before where you get wild turbulence and you have that feeling in your stomach where you think, shit, the plane’s going to go down, and the first thing that comes into my head is that I haven’t come close to doing all the things I want to do in the world yet. There’s a lot of shit I want to be remembered by. But, Dear Suburbia is close to the surf movie I wanted to make so, fuck, if I died tomorrow, hopefully, people watch the film in a few years and still get a few strands of thrill.
Surfing operates on a very superficial moral plane. The films rarely reflect what goes on. Discuss.
Obviously, there are a few films our there that are fucking awesome, like Busting Down the Door. That is such a cool insight into surfing. But, it all happens 30 or so years after the shit actually went down. It’d be cool to tell the real story now. Whether it’s about the tour or shit that happens in surfing. Skaters, in their films and documentaries, talk about real shit from having benders on ecstasy to hitting a mega ramp. Everything you see about surfing is the same.
Now, let me ask you something. No one has made a great pro tour movie, a graphic, honest film about the tour. Derek Hynd came close with Pro Land but, technically, it was very weak. And, you’d be one of the few people who could do it, a filmmaker who has proved to be a cultural shifter…
The sorta shit that goes on on tour, you discover that surfing is actually really cool. I don’t know why people don’t want to showcase it for what it is. I don’t understand why brands don’t let em be themselves and portray ’em as they are.
You can do it! You have the ability!
I’d hope so, but even I, it’s so scary. There’s so many things you don’t want to do because you don’t want to piss people off. You want to make sure you can pay the mortgage, you don’t want to piss the brands off. If you really went all out and you wanted to show something and truly be yourself, even I’d find it so daunting. I can see where surfers come from.
It’s true. Pure genius leaves that person penniless, friendless and usually suicidal. You have to sacrifice so much!
So much! And, is it really worth it? Because, even me, all I want to do is surf. As long as I can work in a fun job and I get to go surfing, I’m stoked. I don’t want to jeopardise a lot for a little. I don’t know how far it gets ya.